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Last Updated: 07/09/2013
Even In Afghanistan, Separate Is Not Equal
Jade Wu

Are US/NATO efforts to empower women and equalize Afghan society undercut by the segregation policies of their own camps and insensitivity to local staff? Jade Wu reports from Kabul and Kunduz.


Twelve years ago, the United States began intense activities in Afghanistan. Military operations aside, it flooded the country with tens of thousands of American civilians and a slew of programs promoting stability and democracy, with a major component dedicated to elevating the status of Afghan women. The result being countless trainings focused on developing local women’s skills and teaching the Afghans the meaning of equality. Yet with all the money, time and effort spent, did the West pass on the values necessary for the beginnings of a democracy, one that supports gender equality? Did American interaction with Afghans on the ground set a good example?

In U.S. history, American women waited more than a hundred years before gaining the right to vote. And women were not commonly accepted in the workplace until World War II. Today American female professionals are still fighting for equal pay doing the same job as their male counterparts. For a male dominated society so fundamentally different from ours in history, culture and religion, what are the chances of Afghans even grudgingly welcoming gender equality in a span of twelve years?

The Constitution of Afghanistan states that men and women have equal rights under the law. Yet in practice, the Afghan culture does not view or treat women as equals. Women are not given the same educational and job opportunities as men; they are still usually under the total control of a male figure. Even a woman’s testimony in an Afghan court does not have the same weight as a man’s.

Credit and Discredit

To the West’s credit it has certainly provided much training to Afghan women in the areas of literacy, educational advancement and job skills. Yet despite the numerous programs, presentations and meetings, Westerners have failed to realize that the way a message is sent often overshadows the message itself. Given the unstable security situation in Afghanistan, the lack of cultural understanding and a common language, Americans are prone to distrust and keeping physical distances between themselves and the locals. Yet inside foreign-operated compounds where internationals have ultimate say and control and where one would think is the easiest place to display aspects of equality, there exists segregation against the Afghans that eerily echoes that of the blacks and whites in U.S. history. When Americans and their fellow foreigners fail to demonstrate that “all men are created equal”, where does this leave Afghan women?

In 2011, I entered Afghanistan as a rule of law advisor funded by the U.S. government. What I saw in Kabul and Kunduz of American behavior gave me reason to pause.

An Afghan police officer receives his uniform, Kunduz 2012. Photograph by Jade Wu.

Separate Is Not Equal

At Camp Integrity, only a few miles from Kabul International Airport, foreigners, mostly Americans, and Afghan staff did things apart. In mid-2011, the camp housed around 150 internationals; about 50 Afghans, who were staff and students, commuted daily from the city. There were two dining halls inside the property, one for the foreigners and one for the Afghans, though the foreigners were allowed in either. On a typical day, the locals would enter the compound and proceed to either the office or classroom. Yet when mealtime arrived, the Afghans, of any rank, men and women, were relegated to their designated dining hall, a much smaller cafeteria with only one choice in a meal. The foreigners, on the other hand, would proceed with each other to their dining facility which always featured a buffet.

Seeing that this curious routine worked against the concept of equality, I inquired of camp management about the arrangement. The answer came back blurry, referring to costs and differences in cuisine. Though on the surface, these might seem reasonable, they are not. Having already spent billions of dollars rebuilding Afghanistan, it could not possibly be much more to allow Afghan staff the option of dining with their international counterparts. Nor are differences in cuisine justifiable as the nature of buffets can accommodate this. What this arrangement actually did was rob the time the two groups could have spent building rapport and camaraderie. To test my theory, on several occasions I joined the Afghan staff for lunch at their designated dining hall. It was apparent they were happy I was there and shared aspects of their lives that they did not usually discuss in the office, particularly the female staff who otherwise would not have out-of-the-office time with me. Disturbingly, when I later shared this with fellow American colleagues, they would mumble an acknowledgement but proceed on with business as usual.

As if the dining segregation was not unnatural enough, foreigners and the local staff were not socializing during break times either. While one group was using the recreational room, the other would be absent. It was apparent that the “relationship” between the two only went so far as their job descriptions required. Their connection was artificial, with the West shamefully leading the way, essentially treating the Afghan men and women inside the compound as second class citizens. When this happened, the chances of locals welcoming gender equality became even more remote.

In Kunduz, the segregation went several steps further. In the fall of 2011, the Kunduz Regional Training Center (or R.T.C.) housed approximately 700 men and one foreign woman. Of the 700 men, 40 or so were international civilians and military. The rest were Afghan police students with approximately 30 Afghan staff. Though the property was mainly a police training camp, the U.S. and several European countries offered courses in literacy, law and forensics; all were opened to professionals from the community in these fields. Like Camp Integrity, the property had separate cafeterias for internationals and Afghans. And to its shame, it also had an invisible line dividing what was the “Afghan” side of the camp and the foreigners’.

On a regular workday, the Afghan staff and the internationals, mostly American, would report to work; the local employees were subject matter experts, I.T. technicians, and linguists. One of them would be in a classroom translating on behalf of an American instructor on equality before the law. Yet when lunch hour arrived, dishearteningly, two groups would emerge. The locals, of any rank, would only be allowed in an Afghan-designated cafeteria where the food was lower quality and less choice whereas, the foreigners would enter the international dining hall which always served a buffet.

Though it was understandable that the Afghan students ate in an Afghan-designated cafeteria due to their rank, this rule should not apply to the local staff. Not only did this segregation take away crucial time for Afghan and American staff to bond, but it quickly undermined the democratic ideals championed in the classrooms, making the West’s message a flow of hypocrisy. With this “separate but equal” arrangement during mealtimes and the expectation that the Afghans will return to their side of the camp after hours, the stage set for local women entering the compound was less than promising.

Female Problems

As Kunduz is located in a rural, less developed part of the country, arguably its women were in most need of what the West had to offer. Coming into this R.T.C. for training, Afghan women faced problems their men never encountered.

First, culturally, it hurt the reputation of Afghan females to even be seen entering a police training camp, especially when not escorted by family members. Second, for those brave enough to try, the security officers manning the entrance were all men except for the rare occasion when a female guard was on duty. An Afghan woman would be expected to allow a strange male security officer check her person and her bags. This meant acquiescing to his standing extremely close, running a hand-held metal detector over parts of her body, and digging his hands into the privacy of her purse. For all the local women, this checkpoint procedure processed by a man not only violated socially accepted norms but proved to be a frightening experience.

Next, when lunch hour arrived, these female students could not comfortably eat in the Afghan designated cafeterias with hundreds of leering male police trainees; nor were they allowed in the international dining hall as they were students and Afghan. Relegated to taking their meals in an unoccupied room, they were left to themselves with no one offering a solution to their dilemma.

Third, to add to their difficulties, there were no female designated restrooms on the entire camp. These women would either have to wait until the end of the day to return home, as the compound had no overnight accommodation for females, or try to find an unoccupied trailer with a toilet or use a unisex bathroom that was frequented by men.

Given the West’s neglect of local women’s basic needs on this camp, it was not a surprise that their attendance was anemic. On a normal class day, no females would be present. On the occasions when the Afghan women would attend a seminar the class ratio would usually be about six women to 50 men.

One would hope that with the push for gender equality, the West would be doing all it can to include local females in programs being offered in any region of Afghanistan. Yet the history of the Kunduz R.T.C. suggests otherwise. In 2010, the German government spent millions of Euros enlarging the camp. Somehow, in the expansion, gender considerations were not addressed. Common sense dictates that in order to encourage female participation, building a female public restroom, arranging a female-friendly dining hall and hiring permanent female gate guards are all unquestionably vital. Moreover, increasing the presence of international women and hiring local female staff were absolutely necessary to encourage Afghan women’s attendance.

With the international community’s lack of cultural sensitivity and by managing the Kunduz R.T.C. the way it did, the Americans not only discriminated against Afghans but showed the local men on this camp that it was acceptable to treat women as less than equals. Neglecting essential amenities for Afghan women purposely separated them and made them inferior, reinforcing a gender bias that Western programs theoretically sought to erase. And as these women saw how their men were discriminated against by foreigners on this compound, should we expect them to absorb a seminar on gender equality with any seriousness?

Progress or Pushback?

For the past year and a half, the international community has allowed the Afghan staff on all R.T.C.s which are located in each province to eat inside the international dining halls; these camps all had similar issues with segregation. As this trend slowly made its way around the country with Kunduz as one of the last to follow, the change was not met without pushback. One American stated that lunch hour was the only time he could “get away” from his Afghan employees. Others made uncomplimentary remarks about the local staff’s lack of hygiene. The idea of sitting next to one’s Afghan counterpart for a meal was less than ideal to many.

In Kunduz, since almost all the local staff commuted from the city, lunch was the only meal at issue. As the foreign dining hall could only accommodate about 60 people at once, Dyn Corp International, the managing company, designed a schedule that would allow both groups to eat together; due to their rank, the Afghan students still ate at the Afghan cafeterias.

Dyn Corp decided that between the hours of 11:00 – 12:00 only internationals can enter. Then from 12:00 – 13:00 both internationals and Afghan staff are welcome. Unfortunately, when put into practice, most internationals ate and left before 12:00 as they did not want to eat with their Afghan staff. At 12:00 the international dining hall became ninety percent Afghan with only a few foreigners who cared to join them. The result indicated not only did the Afghan staff have no issue with the food prepared but that the foreigners did not want to associate with their local counterparts on an equal footing; essentially, they failed to display the notions of equality that were being preached in their programs.

Forget The Women

While this new meal schedule was being enforced, nothing was done to incorporate the local women and their needs into the camp. Eventually, in order to attract more female attendance many of the classes were moved to off-site locations. While this may be more culturally comfortable for Afghan women, it does not excuse or justify the behavior of the international community inside the R.T.C. Off-site locations, arguably, rob the attendees the opportunity to directly and consistently benefit from foreign knowledge and skills. Due to the security problems of these venues, many classes were taught by locals with an international “supervising” from another location. And, where these classes were only attended by females, it also denied Afghans of both genders interaction with each other on an equal footing. Consequently, it separated the females from the men again, inadvertently reinforcing their lower status. If one of the U.S.’s goals is to help the women of Afghanistan equalize their standing to that of the men, Americans need to be present, share what they know, and deliver a consistent message from education to example.

2014

As 2014 approaches and the U.S. is focused on exiting Afghanistan, its success at inculcating Afghans with ideals conducive to treating women more equally remain dubious. While there may be aspects of the local culture that the West cannot understand or change, it can regulate its own behavior. The place where it had the most control was inside its compounds. Yet Americans had difficulty treating Afghans as equal human beings, despite teaching these concepts in classrooms. Particularly in Kunduz, the West went a few steps backward and entirely forgot about Afghan women’s needs on its R.T.C. The way a message is delivered is often just as important as its substance. How is it possible then to expect the locals to take in our message and welcome not only equality but gender equality?

In a tension-torn country where the West is struggling to promote a stable democracy, anything “separate but equal” in practice has no place. Americans should take a page from their own history and remember the outcome in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that separate is not equal. When an Afghan staff enters an international compound, he or she should be afforded the courtesies given to any other employee; likewise when an Afghan student takes classes inside the camp, he or she should be accommodated irrelevant of gender. Only when these strides are made is the U.S. truly on the path to passing on values conducive to a democracy that encompasses gender equality. Let these be lessons learned and passed on to our future missions abroad. And let us never forget that even in Afghanistan, separate is not equal.

Jade Wu is a former rule of law advisor in Afghanistan. A lawyer in Washington, D.C., she has worked on development assignments in Malawi, Kosovo, Germany, Philippines and Iraq. Her writings have appeared in the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, Washington Diplomat and The Hill. All rights reserved by the author.


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